The Sunday Leader

Thick Forests Thin Out As Authority Errs

By Nirmala Kannangara

Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka is accused of going beyond its mandate defined by the Mahaweli Authority Act No 23 of 1979 and allowing Sri Lanka Army (SLA) to develop the Mahaweli riparian areas in the thick forest at Kandakadu in Welikanda.

It is learnt that Mahaweli Authority has given away 11,400 acres of their lands to SLA after the end of the war in 2009 for development purposes. The environmental organisations asked why Kandakadu forest was given to SLA when the TAMP report in 1982 directed the Mahaweli Authority to give this land to Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) to declare the area as part of the Somawathiya National Park and Trikonamadu Nature Reserve.

Meanwhile speculation has arisen regarding SLA’s legal authority in leasing out these lands situated between Somawathiya National Park and Trikonamadu Nature Reserve for private parties for ‘development’ purposes’. As a result, over thousand acres of thick forest in Kandakadu have already cleared disregarding country’s environmental laws thus causing the wildlife to move away from their homelands.

SLA have come under severe criticism for reportedly leasing out 1000 acres of land for Browns Group Agriculture Division for a banana and teak cultivation. Plans are afoot to lease out another 6000 acres of forest for Marina Group for an oil palm cultivation, sources said.

Director Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said that the Mahaweli Authority has acted beyond its mandate thus preventing the once proposed plan of declaring Kandakadu as part of the Somawathiya National Park and Trikonamadu Nature Reserve.

“When the accelerated Mahaweli Project was in progress, this decision was taken but the Mahaweli Authority ignored the proposal by giving away over 11,400 acres of this land to SLA. As a result the country loses the little remaining forest patches at an express pace preventing the declaration of reserves,” Chamikara said.

However, the Mahaweli Authority said they are unaware that the forests are being cleared and the lands have been leased out to private parties by SLA.

“We gave these lands to SLA on the recommendation of the cabinet. However SLA cannot give away these lands to any other party. If they have done so they have violated the agreement conditions to which we have to look into,” Assistant Director (Lands) Mahaweli Authority, Mr Samarakkody said.

According to Chamikara, the TAMP report of 1982, suggested the Mahaweli Authority should give this forest to DWC in order to declare the area as parts of Somawathiya National Park and Trikonamadu Nature Reserve as it is an elephant corridor. “This thick forest was the home for more than 500 wild elephants.

It was the Mahaweli riparian area that provides the best food – the grass and plants for the elephants. With the jungle clearing the native fauna and flora as well as wild elephants face threats. Even the people in the area under a severe danger since wild elephants enter the surrounding villages in search of food,” Chamikara added.

He further said that clearing a forest violates Section 5 and 6 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance of 2009 No. 22 and added that irrespective of whether it is a state or a private land, to clear more than two and a half acres of a land the relevant approvals have to be taken.

“Since this project involved clearing of more than two and a half acres of thick forest it needs to be subjected to an EIA under the provision of National Environment Act (NEA). According to section 23AA of the NEA, any project under the category of prescribed projects as per regulation published in gazette extra ordinary No: 772/ 22 of June 24, 1993 has to go through the process,” Chamikara said.

According to Chamikara, of the 1000 acres leased out to Browns Group, over 650 acres have now been completely cleared and started a teak plantation in 400 acres and in around 250 acres, Kavandis banana has been cultivated.

Earlier the SLA gave over 2500 acres to Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd with the partnership of infamous US based Dole Food Company for banana cultivation in the Somawathiya National Park destroying part of the national park.

“Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd cut down all big trees in the forest and bulldozed part of the national park for banana cultivation to which the environmental organisations later took legal action and stopped their illegal operation.

That was a National Livestock Development Board (NLDB) land. But it was later declared as Mahaweli Development areas under the Mahaweli Authority. Later these lands were given away to the WLCD and then declared as a part of the Somawathiya National Park. Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd cleared more than 1000 acres in the Somawathiya National Park ,” Chamikara added.

Chamikara further said, it is strictly prohibited to develop a national park or its reservations or even over 50 acres in any other forest lands without the approval of the DWC, the Forest Department, Agrarian Services Department, Irrigation Department, Archeological Department, the respective District and Divisional Secretaries as per the State Land Ordinance. He claimed that none of these institutions took action neither against SLA nor Lets Grow when the illegal activity was brought to their notice until environmental organisations took legal action against them.

“If it is above 50 acres forest lands, the approval has to be taken from the said authorities. If it is a land within a one kilo meter radius from the buffer zone of a national park an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report has to be obtained,” he added.

According to Chamikara, once EIA report is obtained, a 30-day period has to be given for public comments and the development work could be approved if only there are no objections.

However, Head of the Agricultural Division Browns Group, Keerthi Liyanage refuted the claim and said they are giving only technical knowledge to SLA for these plantations.

“We do not have any teak or banana plantations in Kandakadu. We are giving out only our technical knowledge. Talk to Director Agriculture, SLA, Col. Gunaratne, for details,” Liyanage said.

Meanwhile Resident Project Manager, Mahaweli Authority Welikanda, P.G. Dayananda when contacted said that this area has been given to SLA in 2012 on a cabinet approval. When asked why this land was given away to SLA, Dayananda said, ‘for security purposes’.

“This area has been given for security purposes and as a buffer zone to prevent terrorists from entering jungle area. We are not aware whether they have leased out these lands for private parties. We cannot believe that army has allowed private parties to use the forest for development purposes,” Dayananda said.

Meanwhile inside sources Browns Group who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to The Sunday Leader that the SLA gave 1000 acres on a 33-year lease agreement and added that the army personnel now clear this area since the SLA does not want to leak out the story.

“When lands from the Somawathiya National Park were given to Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd for banana plantation, the villagers in Kandakaduwa, Trikonakaduwa and Welikanda were given jobs to clear the forest and to make the plantation beds.

These villagers leaked out the story to environmental organisations and later the project was abandon due to a court order.

This time the army did not want the civilians to clear the forest but their own personnel. No one in the surrounding villages know that this area has been given to private parties and they have cleared the jungle since this ‘process’ is taking place in thick forest,” sources said.

However, a Grama Niladari in Welikanda who too wished to remain anonymous said that this has been brought to his notice by few villagers and added that although he has not made a field visit to the area, the allegation may be true as he has seen army presence in the thick forest.

“I was told that the army has chased away the villagers who have gone to the forest to collect bees honey and firewood. During the war this entire area was under the LTTE control. It is from these jungles that the villagers collected bees honey, firewood and even meat for consumption. With the army’s takeover they have been completely barred from entering these jungles,” sources said.

Meanwhile Browns Group sources further said that the high toxic chemicals being used as fertilizer for the banana cultivation would adversely impact the natural habitat in the Somawathiya National Park and even on the fish in the rivers in the years to come.

“They use highly toxic fertilizer to grow banana. This would retain in the soil and will contaminate the ground water. Without using toxic fertilizers, they cannot expect the targeted harvest from Kavandis banana. Even Lets Grow Company too use the same fertilizer,” he added.

Chamikara further said that although Browns Group has openly violated State land Ordinance it is disheartening to find out that the authorities are silent. “What would have been the consequences if our own farmers cleared a few acres of forest lands for chena cultivation? The government officials who are now silent would have taken them to courts and would have sent them to jail,” Chamakara claimed.

Chamikara pointed out water for these plantations is taken from the Kandakadu Oya which feeds the paddy lands in Mavilaru.

“The farmers living in the downstream are now facing a severe water crisis as the water is now being taken for the banana and teak cultivation.

Once the proposed 6000 acres of land are given to Marina Company for oil palm plantation which will need lot of water, this would certainly dry up underground water sources. Once this happened it would bring an adverse impact to the farming community in the area,” Chamikara said.

He further accused Mahaweli Authority of giving 300 acres of lands to Marina Company for an oil palm nursery in Sinhapura. “The company has put up an electric fence around this 300-acre land to protect the nursery from elephants. The electricity for this fence has been obtained illegally from the high tension wire from the national grid.  As a result, an elephant was electrocuted on November 19, but surprisingly no action has been taken nor the DWC has carried out any investigation to find out how the elephant died,” Chamikara added.

According to Chamikara, Gazette Notification, No. 1152/14 of 4 October 2000 issued under the Antiquities Ordinance No.9 of 1940, an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) has to be carried out to determine the impact on archaeological sites prior to the development of land over two hectares. “There are many archaeological sites in the forest and the damage already done to the archaeological sites in the area could be grave. This was an area where our archaeologists were unable to properly explore due to the war. We don’t know how many archaeological treasures are there in the area,” Chamikara alleged.

When contacted Chairman Central Environmental Authority (CEA) Prathapasinghe to find out whether EIA has been carried out by the project proponents, the Chairman said he is not aware and wanted the this newspaper to speak to the Director General for further information.

All attempts to contact Director General, CEA, Dr Saranga Alahapperuma failed as he did not answer the calls.

Meanwhile Divisional Secretary Welikanda, H.S.K. Bandara, when contacted said that he has no authority to talk about the Mahaweli lands.

“Although we have to give permission for any development in a forest, we do not know what is happening in the Mahaweli lands. I cannot make any comment in this regard and cannot take any responsibility. Please talk to Mahaweli Authority for any details you need,” Bandara said.

When contacted Army Commander Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake, the Commander said that although SLA has leased out 1,000 acres to Browns Group, plans are not afoot to lease out 6,000 acres to Marina Company as told by Environmental Organizations.

“Around 10 to 15 private companies have made requests from us to obtain lands for agriculture purposes, which we are still considering but have not given any assurance. People are trying to tarnish the good name of SLA which they cannot do as neither have we nor would we do anything illegal. Kandakadu was a farm before the war and was given to National Livestock Development Board (NLDB). As junior officers we have seen how the NLDB produce dairy products at that time and after the war started the area was abandoned. After the war, the government wanted us to develop this area which was not a jungle but only shrubs. It was then we leased out part of this land to Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd, a subsidiary of USA based Dole Food Company. Although they obtained the land for other agricultural purposes, we later understood that they were planting a special banana variety which is not suitable to this country and we immediately discontinued the agreement,” the Army Commander said.

When asked whether it was the SLA that discontinued the Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd agreement or whether it had to be done on a court order, the Army Commander said according to his knowledge it was the SLA that discontinued the agreement.

“May be other groups may have gone to courts and got a court order as well,” Lt. Col. Daya Ratnayake said. According to the Army Commander, these lands have been leased out in the best interest of the country and its people but not for the benefit of the SLA.

When asked whether these private companies have taken all the government approvals before developing the areas, the Army Commander said, “Remember this is a farm. There is no need to get environment approvals as there is no impact to the environment. Generally they have to adhere to conditions imposed by other government departments. Even they have to adhere to our conditions as well If not we will discontinue those agreements as well. Although you are alleging that Browns Group too have planted the same banana variety as of Lets Grow (Pvt) Ltd grew, I have to find out the truth behind it. If this company too has violated the agreement, we will discontinue the agreement immediately,” Lt. Gen Ratnayake added.

 

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